Despite the intense public discussion and microscopic examination of the proposed “aggressive panhandling” ordinance  (which, hereafter, shall be referred to as the “aggressive solicitation” ordinance, as the Urbana City Council this week indicated they prefer), this is not the first time the city of Urbana has dealt with it. For that matter, Champaign has dealt with it, too.
In 1994, at the urging of Campustown businesses, the Champaign City Council approved an aggressive panhandling ordinance  (which, by the way, remains on the books today as referring to “aggressive panhandling” and not “solicitation”).
I was curious how that has worked out since it was approved -- this is just personal experience: I’ve spent several years living on campus, and I’ve been panhandled dozens of times. But I can’t remember anyone ever doing or saying something to me that would be considered illegal under the Champaign ordinance.
But it has happened to others. I asked for the data from Deputy City Attorney Trisha Crowley, and the city’s legal department provided me with information dating back to 1994.
In the history of the ordinance, the city of Champaign has issued 92 tickets for aggressive panhandling (so roughly five or six per year). Five were paid before it went to city court; in 12 cases, the disposition is not clear because of the age of the records, according to Crowley. The judgment was “satisfied” in another 22, which means the fine was paid, the offender completed public service work or satisfied the fine with a few days in jail after being picked up on a warrant. The remaining 53 were taken to court, meaning the fine was either partly paid or completely unpaid, according to Crowley.
But what really matters is whether the ordinance has achieved its purpose, which is deterring aggressive behavior (and, some would argue, that needs to happen without restricting First Amendment rights or discriminating against the poor). The answer is a matter of each individual’s personal opinion, so you tell me.
That’s how it has fared in Champaign. In 1994, right around the same time Champaign was approving its aggressive panhandling ordinance, Urbana was considering its own.
The proposed ordinance would prohibit panhandlers from grabbing people, blocking a person’s path and repeatedly asking for money after being given a negative response, among other things. Such behavior would be result in a minimum $75 fine. The proposed ordinance would not ban panhandling, where a person asks or begs for an immediate donation of money. Court rulings have repeatedly upheld panhandling as a protected form of free speech,” The News-Gazette reported on Aug. 23, 1994.
That’s generally the same as the ordinance the city council will consider and seems poised to approve next week. And the objections were the same: Then “Alderwomen Esther Patt, D- Ward 1, and Marya Ryan, D-Ward 2, contended that the proposed ban singles out and discriminates against the poor. ‘This says here we’re going to make a caste of untouchables of the most destitute people in our community,’ said Ryan. ‘It disgusts me,’” The News-Gazette reported.
Another story published Sept. 11, 1994, reported that “Michael Pollock, D-Ward 5, said he’s also opposed, calling an ordinance ‘redundant’ in light of existing laws.”
I guess some things never change. That is, of course, that the 1994 city council never passed the ordinance. Why the 2011 city council seems to be of a different opinion is beyond me, but they are just one majority vote away from codifying it this time around.
By the way, not long after the city of Champaign approved its panhandling ordinance, protesters gathered. From a Sept. 21, 1994, News-Gazette report:
City council members appeared unmoved by impassioned arguments from homeless advocates protesting the city’s new aggressive panhandling ordinance. Outside city hall, the Progressive Resource Action Cooperative parodied credit card vendors hawking their services in Campustown to illustrate the double standard being applied to the homeless. ‘This is systematic harassment against the homeless,’ said Stuart Laird, president of the Champaign County chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. ‘It’s like putting up a big sign in Campustown: Poor people not welcome.’